Lynch inaugurated for second N.H. term

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CONCORD, N.H. (AP) – To no one’s surprise, Democratic Gov. John Lynch got his biggest applause from Democrats during his inaugural address Thursday when he called for an increase in the minimum wage.

But Republicans, not Democrats, were the ones who jumped to their feet when he voiced the need for a constitutional amendment to implement a targeted school aid system.

Raising the minimum wage should be easy to get through the Democrat-led Legislature.

Getting his party to vote to put an education amendment on the 2008 ballot will be far more difficult.

“To implement the best education policy for our state, I strongly believe that we must be open to considering a narrow amendment to our constitution,” Lynch said to standing applause from Republicans.

“Not an amendment that allows the state to walk away from its responsibility for education. Not an amendment to take the courts out of education. But instead, an amendment that affirms the state’s responsibility for education, and allows us to direct education aid to the children and communities which need it the most.”

Lynch began his second term as he did his first – stressing the need for bipartisan solutions – and he will need Republicans’ help to address perhaps his biggest challenge in education funding.

“There has been a historic change in the composition of this Legislature, but our duty to the people has not changed,” he told assembled lawmakers Thursday afternoon. “Our duty is not to seek Democratic solutions, nor Republican solutions, rather, we must seek New Hampshire solutions.”

Lynch, 54, of Hopkinton, easily won re-election in November and helped Democrats win control of the Legislature for the first time since the 19th century.

Two years ago, Lynch unseated unpopular Republican Gov. Craig Benson by promising to bring civility and bipartisanship to state government. In November, Lynch trounced little-known Republican state Rep. Jim Coburn of Windham to win a second term campaigning on the same promise.

He said bipartisanship will be needed to tackle issues including improving education, strengthening the economy, expanding access to health care, ensuring public safety and preserving the environment.

Lynch clearly will need Republican support in addressing a recent state Supreme Court decision that set a July deadline for the state to institute a new school funding system or face possible court intervention. Lynch not only opposes income and sales taxes, he also would like to repeal the state’s education property tax and limit state school aid to the neediest communities – something the court says is unconstitutional.

Lynch said school funding debates too often “have focused on frustration with the courts or the desire by some to fundamentally change our state’s tax structure.”

“The people of New Hampshire have spoken clearly,” he said. “They believe, as I do, that the state has a responsibility for education. They believe, as I do, that the state should meet that responsibility without fundamentally changing our tax structure, particularly with a sales or income tax.”

Lynch said the first task will be to more clearly define an adequate education, using existing school approval standards and curriculum requirements as a foundation.

Lynch said state aid should go to the neediest communities, not to all, to ensure that all students have an opportunity for a quality education.

“A school funding formula that distributes essentially the same amount of state aid for every student, regardless of community and need, will only widen these disparities of opportunity,” he said.

Lynch acknowledged the high court has endorsed that approach and said he strongly believes a narrow amendment is needed to implement a targeted-aid system.

Republicans gave Lynch a standing ovation on his call for an amendment. Democrats – who traditionally opposed amendments – gave it a lukewarm reception. Lynch needs 60 percent of the Legislature to get an amendment to the 2008 ballot. Two-thirds of voters would have to vote yes for it to become part of the constitution.

“I was the first one out of my seat,” said Senate Republican Leader Ted Gatsas.

He noted that Lynch will need Democratic support to pass an amendment.

“The governor’s the captain of that team. There’s no question he’s got to lead the charge,” said Gatsas.

House Republican Leader Michael Whalley is among those who doubt an amendment will pass.

“I don’t think this Legislature is going to support a constitutional amendment of any description,” he said.

Democrats characterized their reaction as caution, not necessarily opposition. Senate President Sylvia Larsen said no one has seen Lynch’s proposed amendment and the wording will be critical to winning support.

“I think a constitutional amendment removing court oversight is a boogeyman for many of us. We’ve never seen a positive one created as a statement of support for education,” she said.

“We have two lines drawn in the sand,” said House Speaker Terie Norelli. “On the one hand, we know we will have no broad-based sales or income tax. On the other hand, we will not have a constitutional amendment that will undermine the legitimate role of the court. Everything else in-between is what’s in play.”

Larsen acknowledged there is a “distinct possibility” that Lynch will fail to win over Democrats.

Lynch also repeated his call to raise the school dropout age from 16 to 18 and said the budget he will propose in February will include money for programs intended to keep students from dropping out.

He also called for more job training for workers and those facing the loss of welfare supports.

In sounding the long held Democratic theme of raising the minimum wage, now $5.15 an hour, Lynch said families don’t have “enough for the basics, let alone the extras.”

He also repeated his support for the Land and Community Heritage Investment Program and said more must be done to keep historic places from falling into disrepair.

Republicans questioned how Lynch would pay for his proposals.

“I think I’ve heard it all before,” said Colebrook Republican Fred King, a former House Finance Committee chairman. “All governors like to spend money but they don’t like to raise it.”

Larsen said Lynch promised to propose a balanced budget.

“I think it’s fear-mongering to say, ‘Oh, that’s going to cost a whole lot more money,”‘ she said.

Lynch ended as he began, by calling on lawmakers to put aside partisanship.

“Let our legacy be that we came together – Democrats, independents and Republicans – to put partisanship aside and rose to meet the real challenges our state faced,” he said.

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